Phone Mental Health 

My smartphone is amazing. I love being able to live my life on the go. I make plans on the move; read the Bible in One Year on my commute; and listen to music to drown out the sound of the tube. And all of my friends do the same. But the other day, I got stopped in my tracks. I was on the way home from work, thinking about the day that had passed, and texting my friends about future plans for the week. Suddenly, I found myself dragged completely into the present moment, like I’d just been on the receiving end of the ice bucket challenge. The trigger? A tree which I walk past every single day. But that day, it was absolutely covered in blossom in celebration of Spring. Utterly beautiful, yet I’d almost missed it. It was as if God was shouting at me: ‘Just stop and LOOK!’

I’m part of what Ken Costa, founder of ‘God at Work’, calls the ‘heads down generation’. My phone is with me 24–7 and there’s no doubt that, in many ways, I’ve hugely benefited from living in the connected world. But, like many good things, there’s such a thing as too much. Most people would agree that technology, in particular smartphones, can be a distraction. However my question is, how is it affecting my wellbeing?

Thinking about my own relationship with technology, I see three main risks.

1) Missing out on connecting with others.

A recent 75 year long study at Havard showed that the biggest predictor of happiness & fulfilment is the quality of relationships we have. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, says ‘The good life is built with good relationships’. And it turns out it’s the depth of relationships that matter; being seen for who you truly are, and truly see by others.

Technology can help us stay socially connected, but all too often it pulls us away from the people you’re with who most matter to you. In her excellent book ‘Thrive’, Arianna Huffington recalls how a friend realised she needed a smart phone detox when she realised she had ‘stopped looking into her children’s eyes’. Sadly, I’m sure most of us can relate to that feeling of being pulled away from a face to face conversation by a tantalising buzz in our pocket.

2) We also miss out on gratitude in connecting with God through the world around us.

Often we can be so wrapped up in our devices, and our own thoughts, that we stop noticing the wonder in the world that God has given for us to enjoy. Any kind of gratitude is great for our wellbeing, but there’s evidence to suggest that Nature has a special effect. Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, cites how Japanese researchers have found that something as simple as a 15 minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology, such as decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Psalm 19 v 1 says ‘…The skies proclaim the work of his hands’…yet still, I find myself with my ‘head down’ texting on Hampstead Heath, rather than looking up and thanking God for what he’s made for me to enjoy.

3) We can miss out on the enjoyment of flow.

Flow is that feeling you get when you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you stop noticing time pass. The Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake…your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’
Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that this state results where we’re stretched in an area where we have also have skill. Technology, however, threatens to disturb this precious state. Streams of alerts and interruptions can yank us out of flow. And when we’re interrupted, whether we we’re in the zone or not, it can take us 25 minutes to average to return to the original task as we left it.

These three examples lead me to conclude that technology, if we let it, does pose threats to our mental, emotional and purposeful wellbeing. The good news is, there are simple ways to change the relationship you have with technology?.

Try these five things:

1) Spring clean your notifications and email subscriptions. Do you really need to know when there’s a new news story? If you don’t need it, get rid of it.

2) Batch check your messages. Rather than reading each email or text as they come in and adding it to your mental to do list to respond to later, do them all together at intervals, when you’ve got time to reply. And if you’re aiming for flow, turn them off altogether.

3) Protect the time you spend with important people from digital interruptions. Be totally focussed on the people in the physical world. If you have to, get your friends to stack their phones at the side of the dinner table.

4) Make a resolution to put technology away when you’re outside. Be curious about the world around you. Stop to enjoy a view, look at the detail of trees you walk under, and thank God for them. If this is difficult for you, Christian mindfulness can be a great way to practice being more aware.

5) Have a regular Digital detox. Even if it’s just one evening, you’ll realise the compulsive urge you have to check your device, and gain the motivation to establish the boundaries that make you the master, not a slave to your phone. 

With these boundaries I hope to experience more connection, gratitude and fulfilment in my life and I hope the same will be true for you. 

Alex Nicholson, 08/06/2017
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